The Hiker’s Handbook: The Sunk Cost Fallacy

You did it!

You somehow managed to emerge from the Half Dome permit lottery with permits in hand. You’ve tried for three years to get those permits, and now you’ve finally managed to obtain what was starting to seem unobtainable. You plan for months and months, which includes multiple challenging day hikes designed to build up your stamina. You manage to secure a tent cabin at Curry Camp, drive 8 hours to the park, endure several traffic jams, wait several hours at the permit office, and then toss and turn through a fitful night of sleep prior to the big hike.

You step onto the trail at Happy Isles, and begin a long, grueling ascent on the Mist Trail past Vernal Falls (you get really wet here), and then beyond to Nevada Falls. You keep plugging along through Little Yosemite Valley, and you complete the grueling climb up to the sub dome. You stand in near triumphant anticipation upon the sub dome as you see the final 0.15 mile of cable climbing leading you 400 feet up to the top of the destination you’ve dream of for so long.

And then the storm clouds start to gather overhead, as they often do in the Sierra during summertime.

Past hikers will tell you that the worn down rock surface between the cables on Half Dome has the consistency of ice when it gets wet. No matter how tightly you hold onto the cables under these conditions, you run the risk of a catastrophic fall that will likely kill you. And yet, you’ve waited so long to get to this spot and put so much into making this hike happen. You’re faced with a choice: roll the dice and attempt the cables in the face of a potential downpour? Or, turn around in the knowledge that it may be who knows how many years before you get the chance again?

Your response to this dilemma says quite a bit about your susceptibility to the sunk cost fallacy. Simply put, the sunk cost fallacy refers to one’s pursuit of a goal due to prior commitment even when one no longer stands to benefit or runs a significant risk from completing that goal. In this case, some hikers will fall prey to the sunk cost fallacy, leading them to plug ahead and risk their life because, well, they’ve come this far. Can’t give up now.

One of the most important skills you can develop as a hiker isn’t necessarily a trick or a tool or a technique. It’s the ability to recognize when to cut your losses. From time to time on the trail, you will encounter a situation – weather, terrain, navigation, physical ailment, whatever – that will make you question whether it’s wise to go on. You may feel an internal tug toward persevering, either because of how much you put into getting to this spot or even because you feel external pressure from others.

The bottom line is that no summit experience or check mark on your bucket list is worth getting injured or dying over. You can turn back, and you can return at a later date when conditions are favorable. It doesn’t matter how much time you spent or how much money you spent; the potential costs of accidents and injuries that occur because you push yourself past your limits or through a dangerous situation are simply far too great to justify continuing on.

So, as you consider the best ways to prepare, file this away: always be prepared to turn around any time you face a dangerous situation. This small bit of preparation may be the difference between a good and bad experience at best, and at worst it’s the difference between living and dying.

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